BBC World News - Horizons

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Brace yourself for a new pandemic

Across the globe, people are living longer and fewer are dying from infectious diseases. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we need to brace ourselves for a new wave of chronic, non-communicable diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, which are all on the rise.

Lord Professor Ara Darzi is one of the UK’s leading medical experts. He has more titles than is strictly decent and certainly too many to fit on an ordinary business card. He was knighted for his services in medicine and surgery in 2002. He is a Lord Darzi of Denham and is also a Professor at Imperial College. He also served as under-Secretary of State at the Department of Health until 2009.

Lord Darzi believes the burden of disease is increasing. But the picture is complicated.

Public health, which deals with hygiene and water sanitation, he says, “has doubled our life expectancy over the last century but at the same time the burden of disease overall is increased because of other factors.

“Lifestyle disease being one good example, such as obesity and diabetes and all sorts of other challenges.”

So you have this curious irony where you may have more illnesses than you did in the past but technology allows you to live with them.

The cost is increasing too.

Lord Darzi claims that at the beginning of the last century, we were spending twice the amount of money on funerals per family than on healthcare.

“In the United States in the late 90s they were spending 18.3% of their GDP on healthcare” he says.

“That’s a huge expense. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s fantastic, you know, any society that invests in the health of their population do see the return on that. However, the challenge we’ve had is that the growth in the expenditure of the healthcare far exceeded our economic growth and that’s not sustainable.”

That means we need to educate people and help prevent problems rather than just treat them when they arise.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to advance the way we treat people. Technology will be a major help in improving the effectiveness of those treatments.

In the past we treated hundreds of patients, who had a completely different genetic makeup, with the same drug and expecting all of them to respond to that specific drug.

In the future we will be segmenting that population. We know who will respond to that drug, so we will avoid giving the drug unnecessarily to a group of people who do not respond to it who may even actually suffer from the side effects of it.

The danger is that the new emerging economies in the developing world are designing new healthcare systems which could repeat the same mistakes we have made.

Darzi says there is a “wonderful opportunity” for them to make the right decisions now without having the legacies of the old, but, he adds, “please don’t repeat the same mistakes we’ve done.”

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